To call it a fish market would somehow seem inaccurate, like calling an oozing, ruined banana, a fruit. The bargaining and abuse had risen to deafening heights, it was impossible to hold a normal conversation over the din. Sellers had gathered under the shade of the trees, hundreds of them with tubs of crabs, fish and prawns. They were primarily fishermen or their spouses, not famous for their sense of hygiene.
Crow-shit from above splattered down with surprising uniformity. If some fell on a dead fish, it was immediately thrown into a bucket of murky water, rinsed and placed back on a damp slab with its deceased companions. Mongrels lingered close by, looking to grab a meal. Puddles of mud had gathered from the previous night's shower. Millions of flies buzzed around, like black raindrops in a downpour.
This assembly was a weekly event here, which though one of the city's elite neighbourhoods, was also home to a number of slum colonies mostly comprising of fishermen. It was often said every variety of fish found in South India could be spotted for sale in markets like this. Considering the sheer volume of seafood that was dumped here every week, the boast was not an unrealistic one. If something swam anywhere south of the equator and was demonstrably delicious, this vomit-inducing market was where one would find it. It was always packed when open; fish-eaters from around the city came here to buy their preferred types. The crowd was more like that of a carnival.
"Meen Market' it was called in the city. Fish market. But to call it that would somehow seem inaccurate, like calling that oozing, ruined banana a fruit again.
Sailen whirled his right arm in the air in a futile attempt to drive the flies away. He hated the insects and hated squeezing through strangers around him as he made his way from one seller to the other. But he was here every week with his blue basket and a wallet bloated with ten rupee notes. He was one of those regular customers who could authenticate the exotic variety of sea life at the meen market.
"It's the worst place on earth" he would tell anyone who hadn't heard about the market, "but the prawns they have"" he would leave the sentence unfinished, allowing a hungry twinkle in his eyes finish it. His hatred for the place was exceeded only by his love for prawns. He treated his journey to the market every Sunday like a devout saint would an unusually taxing pilgrimage, pros methodically weighed against cons, always coming to the conclusion that the voyage was worth its prize.
"Oi Muruga!" he snapped, as he walked up to a scrawny man surrounded by tubs of pale-golden prawns. "Keep half a kilo ready, Ill be back soon." The scrawny fisherman gave Sailen a broken toothed smile of gratitude and nodded vigorously, as if afraid a lukewarm response would make the customer change his mind. He watched Sailen manoeuvre past his fellow consumers, rubbing past them to inspect the goods on display.
Most of the fishermen here knew him, not by name but by his beard and comically thick glasses. Vaathiyaar they named him amongst themselves, for that was exactly what he looked like to them, a teacher. They had seen him here every Sunday for the last eleven years. Newcomers to the fishing community and the market would be warned by their senior colleagues: "Look out for the Vaathiyaar type fellow, don't try to cheat or lecture him. He will know more about your catch than you."
He drifted along the sea of buyers like a phantom. Occasionally, he would stop along a group of tubs and interrogate the hapless fisherman in charge, testing the poor fellow's knowledge of what he sold. They loved him as all sellers loved their loyal customers, but their dread of his probing questions made him an uncomfortable presence.
At some angles, the umbrella would block the sun and its shadow would cast his head into a bubble of darkness, so that he looked like a headless body. It was while standing at such an angle that he apprehended a young man, his age a sure indication he was new.
"What is this?" he commanded, pointing a rigid finger to a slab to the young man's side. "Shrimp" said the boy simply; aware he was face-to-face with the notorious figure he had been warned about. A chill ran down his spine as he heard Sailen's gruff laugh. "They are prawns." he challenged the lad "Don't you know the difference between prawns and shrimps?" Contrary to popular belief, the difference between the two crustaceans lies not in their size but in their gills. Prawns have a branching gill structure, in contrast to the lamellar one of shrimps. But the lad didn't and couldn't know this, like most people.
"Their size." he ventured foolishly, unaware of his own ignorance. For a brief moment, the sun's rays penetrated the void of darkness under Sailen's umbrella and reflected off his glasses. In that split-second, his eyes sparkled through the shadows at the terrified young man, a sinister gleam revealing the darker side of Vaathiyaar. With a look of unquestioning contempt, Sailen turned around and disappeared among the ocean of customers. The boy shivered, the cold display of scorn was more disconcerting than any verbal bashing.
He frantically prayed to every God he knew to be spared at least the next week.